The Supreme Court’s order on Friday to ban the sale of firecrackers in Delhi and the National Capital Region because of growing air pollution comes as a relief to many citizens. In its order, the court asked Central Pollution Control Board to file a report on the harmful effects of the firecrackers in three months. The top court said that no new licenses would be given to selling crackers and there shall be no renewal until further orders. “Keeping the grave air quality in mind, we can intervene to suspend the license,” the apex court said. For the past three decades, environmentalists have been seeking a court order banning the sale of firecrackers to prevent further deterioration of the city’s air quality. Air quality in Delhi-NCR saw an alarming drop following Diwali celebrations on October 30. As a result of the smog that clouded the national Capital, schools remained closed for three days starting November 7. Every year post-Diwali, our social media feeds are lined up with news stories detailing the massive spike in air pollution levels. This year, many Indian cities woke up to a cloud of smog the day after Diwali, with air pollution levels reaching alarming levels. During the festival of lights, pollution levels in the national capital touch extremely unhealthy levels as a dangerous mix of noxious gases and respirable pollutants remain very close to the surface due to low temperature and negligible wind movement. PM (Particulate Matter) 2.5 rose to "hazardous" levels – from 643 to 999 micrograms in various areas, which is several times higher than the safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metre, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. PM 10 was 999 micrograms per cubic metre, also much higher than the safe limit of 100 micrograms. On the day after Diwali, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5 in Delhi were recorded at severe levels of 785 micrograms per cubic metre and 491 micrograms per cubic metre, respectively. Levels beyond the safe limit can cause serious harm to the respiratory system as the ultra-fine particulates can embed themselves deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Health experts contend that once such particulate matter enters the lungs, they restrict the availability of oxygen to lung muscles, affecting the supply of essential air flow. Apart from other serious health-related risks, the accumulation of particulate matter could ultimately result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancers. Besides the dangers of rising vehicular pollution and accumulating road dust during Diwali, residents have to contend with firecrackers. Last year, the Supreme Court refused to impose a ban on people bursting crackers at home and restrict celebrations to community spaces during Diwali, saying that it would be an unnecessary intrusion into personal liberties. But, the court insisted that bursting of crackers should be limited to between 6 am and 10 pm, as it had ordered earlier. What changed this year? With the public losing its patience on the deteriorating quality of air, the corridors of power have finally woken up from their slumber and the past week has seen authorities tackling the public health emergency with greater urgency. However, a ban on firecrackers is only a tiny step towards improving the air quality, as argued in these columns earlier. In a recent column, Sarath Guttikunda, a leading expert on urban air pollution in India, illustrated some of the long-term policy measures Delhi needs to take. But the crux of his column talked about what it means to take the long view. “Real policy is not short-term emergency measures that are defensive in nature,” writes Guttikunda. “We need a proactive policy spanning multiple years, and we need to act fast, local and through multiple agencies across multiple political parties to take the long view on air pollution in Delhi.” There are various causes responsible for Delhi’s bad air and some of the solutions required to tackle them will involve consistent efforts from government agencies and responsible citizens beyond the current news cycle. Families are already moving out to the city to avoid the pollution. Some have installed expensive air purifiers. Those who cannot move out or afford the latest anti-pollution technology are suffering.